Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Female Role Models Act Like a Social Vaccine to Inoculate Against Stereotypes

Professor Nilanjana Dasgupta and graduate students: Jane Stout, Matthew Hunsinger and Melissa McManus, who are social psychologists at UMass Amherst, in a fascinating set of studies, found that academic contact with women, who have succeeded in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), can enhance positive attitudes and boost self-confidence among girls and young women who, in other situations, feel less confident and interested in science majors or careers.

The writeup of their study appears in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

They found that, for young female students at the beginning of college, who are considering STEM majors and careers, having contact with female scientists and engineers as professors or, amazingly, even through websites, plays a role in helping them to see themselves as scientists. Interestingly, however, for male students, the professor’s gender is less important, but for female students it makes a big difference in STEM classes!

UMass Amherst issued a press release on the paper that summarizes the researchers' findings, which stated: "Increasing the visibility of female scientists, engineers and mathematicians, and providing young women who are beginners in these disciplines the opportunity to have personal contact with them, profoundly benefits their self perception in STEM," the researchers noted. The women subjects tried harder on difficult math tests, showed more positive attitudes toward math and engineering, identified with these disciplines more strongly and felt more empowered about their ability to do well in the future after being exposed to female scientists and engineers rather than males.

Also: According to the press release:

"We’re using the term ‘stereotype inoculation’ as a medical metaphor. Like a vaccine, female role models inoculate or protect girls and women’s interest in STEM professions and make them more resilient to societal stereotypes (the virus)," Dasgupta explains. "What was most exciting to us was that implicit negative feelings toward math expressed by these young women reversed and became strongly positive after they had contact with female role models in math and science. Similarly, implicit dis-identification with math became strong identification after they had contact with female role models."

I must thank my high school math and science teachers, several of whom were women. Amazingly, while an undergrad at Brown I never had a female professor in any math, science, or engineering subject, but heard from some of my female friends and fellow concentrators in Applied Math, that there was a female professor named Stella Dafermos. At that time, she was the only female professor in either Applied Math or in all of Engineering! I met her when I became a doctoral student and she became my dissertation advisor. On numerous occasions during my world-wide travels and extended stays at other universities abroad, I have had female students come up to me and say how important it is for them to see a female professor who is happy and (their word) successful.

One gets the same feedback even at home and just today a former undergrad student of mine stopped by to just chat about the great job that she will start after graduation and the possible challenges that she may face as a technical female, who, I might add, ultimately wants to get a PhD in Operations Research!

If you can imagine it, you can do it!